Arms deal investigation: Too little, too late?

The decision by President Jacob Zuma to launch a commission of enquiry into the controversial arms deal has largely been hailed a positive sign in the fight against corruption, but his motives and timing have nevertheless been called into question by some critics and analysts.

On Thursday, Zuma announced through his spokesperson Mac Maharaj that he had instructed Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe to set up an investigation into the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages, as the “arms deal” is formally known.

“The president will soon announce the terms of reference and the composition of the commission, including the time frames,” Maharaj said in a statement.

The controversial arms package that was meant to modernise the country’s defences has been a bone of contention in South African politics since allegations of corruption first arose in 1999.

Then-Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) MP Patricia de Lille was the first to blow the whistle on alleged irregularities in the deal, which was then worth R30-billion.

“It has been a long journey spanning 12 years for this to happen, but I have to ask: Why has this taken so long?” De Lille said on Thursday.

Zuma’s decision comes ahead of a Constitutional Court hearing on November 17 about whether a formal commission should be formed to probe the matter, after the Western Cape High Court ruled in 2009 that the matter should be looked into, but that the high court could itself not direct the president to open such an inquiry.

Who will head the commission?
The ball is firmly in Zuma’s court when it comes to deciding who will head up the arms deal probe and exactly what scope the investigation will have, something that has left many sceptical as Zuma was heavily implicated in the original corruption allegations surrounding the deal.

“I will be waiting for what is going to be put before this commission to decide if I trust it or not,” De Lille told the Mail & Guardian.

Several attempts to uncover wrongdoing in the multibillion-rand deal have already been thwarted.

After a formal request in late 2000 by the now defunct Heath anti-corruption unit for a formal investigation into the transaction on the back of reports of irregularities by then-auditor general Shauket Fakie some months earlier, then-president Thabo Mbeki put an end to Heath’s involvement.

Andrew Feinstein, the ANC’s official spokesperson on the parliamentary public accounts committee who resigned in 2001 after the ANC refused to launch a probe into the arms deal, gave Zuma’s decision to reopen the investigation a cautious welcome.

“I think that one instinctively wants to welcome such a decision, but it is entirely dependent on the nature of the commission of inquiry. It needs to be seen as independent and not sympathetic to the president and ANC,” said Feinstein, whose book After the Party looks into the history of the investigations into the arms deal.

Analysts suggest whoever does end up setting up the commission will not only have a tough job of conducting a thorough investigation, but also of convincing the South African public that Zuma is serious about the matter.

“Obviously it’s a step forward,” Professor Steven Friedman of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa told the M&G. “But we shouldn’t assume that this is going to be a comprehensive and satisfactory investigation into what has gone wrong. Whoever is appointed will have to persuade a very sceptical public.”

Further reaction to Zuma’s announcement:

  • Helen Zille, DA: This is the president’s opportunity to lead. After all these years, the South African public deserves to finally know the whole truth behind the arms deal. The cancer of corruption is destroying the body politic of South Africa with the arms deal at its core. Now is the time to excise it.

  • Keith Khoza, ANC: This is a demonstration of the government’s will to deal with corruption and perceptions of corruption. This commission will bring to closure wild speculation and will restore the dignity and credibility of the government and arms industry broadly.

  • Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu: It’s great news and it will go a long way in instilling some confidence in the government. I would only hope it is accompanied by equally hard hitting enquiries into the issues of today such as the Sicelo Shiceka and police lease issues.

  • Mukoni Ratshitanga, former president Thabo Mbeki’s spokesperson: Jacob Zuma is the sitting president of the republic and he has the power to institute an inquiry. Apart from that, I have no comment.

  • Themba Godi, Scopa/APC: Let’s just hope that it will be substantive and go the full way because this is not going to disappear unless we deal with it properly.

  • Bantu Holomisa, UDM: It would have been good had he done this when he came to power but we welcome the apparent change of heart by the ANC. I just wish that it will be done properly so that we deal with this once and for all.

  • Kenneth Meshoe, ACDP: This is good news for all South Africans concerned about corruption. There were definite irregularities in this deal and its success will depend on who is leading the enquiry and the terms the president puts onto it.

  • Koos van der Merwe, IFP: This is unbelievable. I can only think: Why now? Its suspicious and it seems as though time needed to cover people’s tracks before an investigation was launched.

  • Dave Steward, FW De Klerk Foundation We’d greatly welcome a proper investigation into the arms deal as it is a festering sore that has poisoned our politics for far too long.

  • Malesela Maleka, SACP: We welcome the appointment of the commission of enquiry. This will help in putting the matter to rest once and for all. Whatever emerges out of it that warrants action such action should be taken. This is a good sign of an administration that is committed to fighting corruption and the president must be applauded for this.

  • Mosiuoa Lekota, Cope: It was not in the interests of this country to have all these questions remaining about what exactly happened. There is a huge cloud hanging over many senior people in government including President Zuma himself. We will have to look at who he employs to do the inquiry and the terms of reference they will be using in doing their job.

For more news on the arms deal visit our special report.

Nickolaus Bauer

Nickolaus Bauer

Nickolaus Bauer is the Mail & Guardian's jack of all trades news reporter that chases down stories ranging from politics and sports to big business and social justice. Armed with an iPad, SLR camera, camcorder and dictaphone, he aims to fight ignorance and pessimism through written words, photographs and videos. He believes South Africa could be the greatest country in the world if only her citizens would give her a chance to flourish instead of dwell on the negativity. When he's not begging his sub-editors for an extra twenty minutes after deadline, he's also known to dabble in the occasional poignant column that will leave you mulling around in the depths of your psyche. The quintessential workaholic, you can also catch him doing sports on the weekday breakfast show on SAfm and presenting the SAfm Sports Special over the weekend. Read more from Nickolaus Bauer

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